Tilak Raj Dua, Director General, Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association

The roll-out of telecom infrastructure in India has been expensive and full of hurdles. Obstacles such as stringent no­rms and cumbersome right-of-way (RoW) procedures and permissions, and hefty charges have inhibited the rate at which telecom infrastructure has grown. The government had notified the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules in 2016, with the aim of ensuring a uniform adoption of RoW rules across all the states, and streamlining the process of RoW appro­vals. Its salient points included the adoption of an electronic ap­p­lication of a single-window clearance pro­cess by all state government authorities. The implementation of these rules at the state level, however, has been slow.

That said, the government’s focus on infrastructure under the recently released National Digital Communications Policy, 2018 is very encouraging. The policy aims to create a robust telecom infrastructure in the country through provisions such as Fibre First Initiative, incentives and exemptions for the construction of telecom towers, accelerated RoW permissions, enhancing the scope of infrastructure providers, and rationalising taxes and levies.

Issues impeding infrastructure roll-out

A majority of the Indian states have issued more than one policy for the installation of telecom towers, which resulted in delayed telecom infrastructure roll-outs. Further, companies are required to obtain appro­vals as well as no objection certificates (NoCs) from several entities. Lack of uniformity in fee is another major setback for the infrastructure roll-out. Addi­­tio­nally, there are annual or renewal char­ges as well as sharing charges in some cases. Other taxes and levies such as development char­ges are also imposed. States levy exorbitant amount of property tax. Situation can be improved if states could levy uniform, nominal one-time property tax.

Further, companies are more often than not restricted from installing telecom infrastructure in schools, colleges, hospitals, residential areas and jails. In addition, artificial restrictions regarding height and setback limits for towers in states also hinder the roll-out. Non-availability of government land and buildings for the installation of mobile towers is also an impediment to the speedy roll-out and results in non-ubiquitous coverage. Deployment of new and existing telecom sites is also impacted due to the prevailing myths and superstitions related to electromotive force (EMF).

Lack of availability of grid power round the clock in various pockets of the country  also impacts the infrastructure roll-out in states. Further, commercial tariffs are being charged from towercos instead of industrial tariffs. Cases of thefts and vandalism often lead to network breakdown, impacting the quality of services.

Implementation of RoW rules – current status

Currently, only 12 of the total states have notified policies, which align with the RoW Rules, 2016. Meanwhile, the RoW policies of 14 states are still under discussion and another 10 states have no uniform RoW policies in place.

Some of the common features of align­ed state policies are single-window clearance mechanism, one–time fee for telecom infrastructure installation, time-bound clearances with deemed approvals, documentations aligned with the Department of Telecommunications’ guidelines, validity of permissions made co-terminus with the licence/registration period and the availability of government land and buildings.

Although these states have notified and aligned policies with the RoW Rules, 2016, their implementation at the ground level continues to be a pain point for the industry. Ground level implementation of these policies needs to be expedited for their efficient utilisation. Following the lead of states such as Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha, which have taken the initiative to issue directives to the state departments regarding down-the-line implementation of policies, will prove beneficial in expediting the roll-out of infrastructure in the respective states.

Common duct – Dig Once Policy

The cities of the future will be built on ready fibre network for enabling ubiquitous and seamless connectivity. Therefore, a co­­mmon duct will play an important role in the laying of fibre and can be commonly used by infrastructure providers, telecom ser­­­­vice providers, cable operators, internet service providers and public utilities. The Dig Once Policy envisions laying a comm­on duct, which can be used by stakeholders to lay fibre easily for the provision of broadband/cable services. This would not only save time but also reduce cost and effort.

The way forward

Going forward, the alignment of all states with RoW Rules, 2016 and an effective ground-level implementation will be a tremendous step forward in streamlining the RoW process. Restrictions on the location of towers will need to be done away with, and the government land and buildings will need to be made increasingly available for use. Further, provision of electricity at par with the industrial tariff and prevention of pilferage and theft at sites will need to be ensured. Last but not the least, the­re is an acute need for a common duct po­licy to expedite telecom infrastructure roll-out in the country.